core competence: noun. 1. A skill needed in order to be successful at a job or other activity; 2. A particular knowledge or expertise that gives a business a competitive advantage.
Working with so many client companies over the years, we have often run into the classic “core competency study.” Typically, this has happened when a client has contacted us about some potential marketing development training, which they intend to commence upon completion of such a study. While you can understand the logic behind setting skill-based objectives before commencing skill-based training, all too often what happens is that these competency studies drag on (or the people overseeing them move on), leaving company marketers adrift, without even the most fundamental kinds of development (such as constructing a technically sound Brand Positioning Strategy, Market Segmentation, or Communication Brief). And, naturally, when marketers keep entering the function from other functions (such as Sales) or graduate school, there isn’t much in the way of live marketing experience for them to fall back on. All of which inhibits achieving both parts of the core competency definition above.
The irony in all of this is that, with the right Marketing leadership experience, most of these core competencies for marketers are self-evident, intuitive even. More to the point, when one knows what “missions” marketing teams must accomplish, the various “sub-skills” required to achieve them really don’t need a formal study to be identified. In fact, we observe that these various studies typically fall short in identifying some of the most critical competencies that marketers must exhibit to accomplish their #1 mission: achieving and sustaining a competitive advantage for their brands. Upon first blush, some of these might appear to be more attitudinal than behavioral; actually, each of these “competencies you almost never see” are evident only in consistent marketing personnel behaviors.
Core Competencies for Marketers You Never See
- Busting through comfort zones. When exhorting his senior staff team to think differently and move urgently, a former president of Frito-Lay was known to assert that “we are victims of our past success.” Not coincidentally, he was a marketing guy by background, having at one point served as Frito-Lay’s Chief Marketing Officer. He recognized that by repeating, year after year, the same formula that had sustained double-digit growth and dominant U.S. market share (45%+), the Company would eventually end up “victimized,” as in falling well short of its goals. Marketers today, even those well below the CMO level, need to constantly assess (and explain to management) how their brands have been growing—or not growing—and then recommend testing out new approaches for growth, ultimately building new competencies to achieve it.
- Forcing “the Lady or the Tiger.” Remember the classic short story by Frank Stockton? It’s the one about the rather barbaric king who demanded that any subjects accused of serious crimes—or any who sought his beautiful daughter’s hand in marriage—choose between two doors. Behind one door stood a lovely young maiden who would marry the accused; behind the other loomed a man-eating tiger that would quickly put an end to the accused/suitor. In the story, of course, readers are left hanging about which door the protagonist chooses—even though the king’s daughter has given him a “signal” as to which door houses the maiden. The story is ultimately about forcing choices. Perhaps there is no core competency more critical for marketers than that of forcing (as in recommending with hard evidence-rationale and conviction) senior management to make a choice, to decide. Some years ago, a longstanding well-regarded, more senior marketing research professional requested a move into line marketing. Given her reputation and regard, she was offered a position as Senior brand Manager on the Company’s #1 Brand. But, in short order, it was clear that she lacked this core competency of pushing for the better choice, the right decision for the brand. Time and again, when asked which option she would recommend from among several, she would merely lay out the pros and cons of each. Lacking this mindset and habitual skill, she was returned to her original corporate function.
- Calling BS. Especially when working with internal “brand teams” or outside “supplier-partners,” this competency is a must. How often do team members acquiesce and accept something that is clearly not right, not in the brand’s best interest, in a spirit of warm collegiality? Take, for example, one such acquiescence that we have witnessed time and again when teams are in desperate need of a customer or consumer insight—definitely never an easy quest. All too often, what happens, though, is that something that is obviously not a genuine insight (or even a productive insight for the brand) finds agreement; this amounts to “kicking the can down the road” because, later when ideas fail to materialize, someone finally has the nerve to say, “no wonder, we never had a real insight to guide us in the first place.” Calling BS doesn’t have to mean being rudely blunt: it does mean being directly honest in real-time, which ends up saving lots of valuable time, money, and energy. And it leads to better outcomes for the brand.
- Undressing in Macy’s window. We have likely mentioned this metaphor in a few previous DISPATCHES. It’s one of our favorites, coming from one of our favorite former bosses and clients. As Senior VP of Sales and Marketing, he used to say that what he needed most from his marketers was the gumption to speak their minds, even if and especially if doing so was potentially personally embarrassing. The metaphor is nothing more than a call for demonstrated Thought and Personal Leadership. Clearly, this competency has nothing to do with being outspoken or outlandish for the sake of it; instead, it’s about having the moxie to (1) come up with new, even scary brand-building ideas and (2) stand up for those ideas with passion. As this same former boss used to tell his marketers after hearing out a two-sided, heated argument about one choice or another, “I’m going to agree with your recommendation; I just wanted to gauge your true passion for it.” Consistently demonstrating conviction and passion is for sure a behavior that, just as in a court of law, can often be the determining factor in winning the day.
No doubt you’ve noticed that all four of these “never seen” marketer-competencies share one thing in common: they tend to be relatively rare. You could argue that’s because it takes a particular, unusual personality to operate with them all the time. So perhaps there is one other competency that we ought to mention: Picking your battles. In other words, not every marketer needs to demonstrate each of these competencies every time. Demonstrating them at just the right time can be the most effective skill of all.
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Develop and refine essential skills to make your marketing matter more. Please read Richard’s most recent book, AVOIDING CRITICAL MARKETING ERRORS: How to Go from Dumb to Smart Marketing. Learn more here: http://bdn-intl.com/avoiding-critical-marketing-errors. It will help you avoid critical marketing errors and, importantly, suggest actions you can take to grow your skills and gain a competitive advantage.
Peace and best wishes,
Richard Czerniawski and Mike Maloney